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New twist in the case of murdered bishop

The sentences of the four people condemned last year for the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala could be overturned this week.

The Human Rights Office of the archdiocese of Guatemala City, the ODHA, which is party to the prosecution, has misgivings about the outcome when their cases come up for appeal in the Supreme Court.

"We would like to feel that the sentences had enough weight to ensure that they will be reconfirmed", Nery Rodenas, director of ODHA, which was founded by the murdered bishop, told The Tablet.

But he alleged that there were serious doubts about the impartiality of one of the three judges hearing the case, who has close links to the military. ODHA has pressed without success for the judge to be replaced.

Bishop Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his home in April 1998, two days after publishing a milestone investigation into the murder and torture of thousands of people by Guatemala's military. Three army officers and a priest were given sentences of 20-30 years for his murder. But neither his assassin nor those with responsibility in the chain of command were brought to trial.

"We want to use the appeal to push for the prosecution of other military personnel", Rodenas added. "Last year the court recommended the investigation of 13 more suspects but so far nothing has happened. It is clear that there must have been many more people involved in planning the murder."

Pushing the case forward is a dangerous business. Nine witnesses and one judge have fled Guatemala in fear of their lives, and at least a dozen witnesses were killed during the investigation. Many other witnesses are too afraid to appear in court.

The Guatemalan President, Alfonso Portillo, has called the murder and its investigation "a national embarassment" and has promised justice. But since he was elected in January 2000, threats and intimidation have continued unchecked.

The Tablet

Catholic Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi (Amnesty International USA)

30 Sep 2002